PBS on Vietnam, how the propaganda distortions triumph

[Editor’s note: If you wonder how Americans could learn our history without realizing that the “founding fathers” were slave owners, that through much of the 19th century the US was genociding Native Americans, or how Southerhers to this day could believe that the South was fighiting a “noble”cause in the Civil War and its generals deserving honor need only watch how as the memory of the Vietnam war fades and those of us who got fired from their jobs, lost their careers, beaten and jailed for opposing it (including me) begin to die off the meaning and reality of that war get polished into another propaganda victory for the “America is always good” picture that Ken Burns and Lynn Novick deliver in their PBS series on the Vietnam war. I’ll save my own story as chair of Berkeley Students for a Democratic Society (the most activist anti-war group on the UC Berkeley campus) and as the college professor who was indicted by the Nixon Administration, for some later time (I”m writing a memoir). But for the moment, I am sharing with you selections from some others whose perspectives help us understand the workings of contemporary propagandist
–Rabbi Michael Lerner rabbilerner.tikkun@gmail.com ]
From Jim Sleeper in Alternet “[Ken Burns’ and Lynn Novick’s documentary] The Vietnam War … will doubtless shape popular memory of the conflict for years to come,” writes the veteran activist and historian Maurice Isserman in Dissent [ http://%20https/www.dissentmagazine.org/article/ken-burns-lynn-novick-vietnam-war-review ]. Although Isserman praises the television series — now showing nightly on PBS — for exposing the war’s duplicity and brutality, he laments that its depiction of anti-war protesters leaves “the impression that hundreds of thousands of Americans… were indeed swearing allegiance to Chairman Mao… rather than, say, exercising the rights and responsibilities of citizens to challenge a war that they regarded as inconsistent with American interests and values.” Negative depictions of anti-war protesters in 1969 anticipated denigrations of Iraq war opponents in 2003 and of today’s campus protestors against racism and sexism-and soon, very possibly, another blundering war. While some protesters do act counter-productively and destructively, Isserman is right to warn that caricatures of them are even more destructive to democracy. I’ve previously written about my own first encounter with brave, constructive anti-Vietnam war protest [ http://www.alternet.org/election-2016/heres-what-resisting-vietnam-war-taught-me-about-resisting-trump ] one wintry morning in 1968. Since the September 25 episode of The Vietnam War does emphasize what was wrong in the anti-war movement, let me say something about what was right. “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” 27-year-old Vietnam veteran John Kerry asked the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in April 1971. But the war wasn’t a “mistake,” it was a systemic and ideologically driven lie, prompted by premises and practices that had been “made in America” and that were metastasizing even within the anti-war movement. Bitterness among those determined not to be Kerry’s “last man” prompted vengeful slogans such as “Bring the war home!” and “Two, three, many Vietnams!” That did short-circuit the dissent I’d encountered in the early movement, the loose coalition of anti-war, civil rights, counter-cultural, and other efforts at “social change.” ………. Our patriotism didn’t involve shouting “USA! USA!” at football games and political rallies. But neither did we shout “Up against the wall, motherf**ker!” or call cops “pigs.” We emphasized the civic republican virtues: trustworthy reason-giving in deliberations, mutual respect, and a willingness to temper one’s immediate self-interest to enrich a shared, public interest. We thought that what we called “the corporate state” was submerging those civic virtues and the public interest in what would later be called “neoliberal” relativism and free-marketeering that reduces candid, open-minded citizens to self-centered consumers…….
Some of us still associated American patriotism with Henry David Thoreau and latter-day civic saints such as the assassinated Martin Luthet King Jr. But my first encounter with that ethos, on that wintry morning in 1968, had come just a month after the devastating American response to North Vietnam’s Tet offensive. Many people my age slid away from the war by resorting to bureaucratic expedients, trumping up physical problems; teaching in inner cities just long enough to obtain certification; undertaking religious training without faith; and finding other excuses for deferring military service. I call these “expedients” because many young men found their way to them not out of conviction but out of fear and narrow self-interest like that of Dick Cheney, who took five deferments because, he said, “I had other priorities in the 1960s.” Donald Trump, 6’2″ and in robust health in 1968, just as 300,000 men were being inducted to support new troop deployments in Southeast Asia, sought and received a deferment for “bone spurs.” He later said they “healed up quickly,” after which a high draft lottery number freed him from further worry about being drafted.
There has always been another, older way to avoid acknowledging responsibility for senseless killing: One can try to make a virtue of necessity by telling oneself that when soldiers kill and are killed in a war, no matter how irrational or immoral the war, high merit and noble destiny can be ascribed to their deeds retroactively, because they risked and/or sacrificed their lives. We think so when we refuse to acknowledge that blood has been shed meaninglessly. John Kerry punctured that sort of denial when he asked, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”………But there is something to be said for all protest that isn’t itself murderous. A republic’s freedoms are endangered most by those who duck their obligation to stand up and be counted, one way or another. Cheney and Trump ducked and, without knowing it, they went on to become part of Vietnam’s revenge, excrescences of that war. I will never fault anyone who served out of duty or conviction or who refused openly to serve for the same reasons. But Vietnam taught me that the blood shed in such war can’t retroactively sanctify it.
From John Pilger in CounterPunch :
One of the most hyped “events” of American television, The Vietnam War, has started on the PBS network. The directors are Ken Burns and Lynn Novick. Acclaimed for his documentaries on the Civil War, the Great Depression and the history of jazz, Burns says of his Vietnam films, “They will inspire our country to begin to talk and think about the Vietnam war in an entirely new way”.
In a society often bereft of historical memory and in thrall to the propaganda of its “exceptionalism”, Burns’ “entirely new” Vietnam war is presented as “epic, historic work”. Its lavish advertising campaign promotes its biggest backer, Bank of America, which in 1971 was burned down by students in Santa Barbara, California, as a symbol of the hated war in Vietnam.
Burns says he is grateful to “the entire Bank of America family” which “has long supported our country’s veterans”. Bank of America was a corporate prop to an invasion that killed perhaps as many as four million Vietnamese and ravaged and poisoned a once bountiful land. More than 58,000 American soldiers were killed, and around the same number are estimated to have taken their own lives.
I watched the first episode in New York. It leaves you in no doubt of its intentions right from the start. The narrator says the war “was begun in good faith by decent people out of fateful misunderstandings, American overconfidence and Cold War misunderstandings”.
The dishonesty of this statement is not surprising. The cynical fabrication of “false flags” that led to the invasion of Vietnam is a matter of record – the Gulf of Tonkin “incident” in 1964, which Burns promotes as true, was just one. The lies litter a multitude of official documents, notably the Pentagon Papers, which the great whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg released in 1971.
There was no good faith. The faith was rotten and cancerous. For me – as it must be for many Americans – it is difficult to watch the film’s jumble of “red peril” maps, unexplained interviewees, ineptly cut archive and maudlin American battlefield sequences.
In the series’ press release in Britain – the BBC will show it – there is no mention of Vietnamese dead, only Americans. “We are all searching for some meaning in this terrible tragedy,” Novick is quoted as saying. How very post-modern.
All this will be familiar to those who have observed how the American media and popular culture behemoth has revised and served up the great crime of the second half of the twentieth century: from The Green Berets and The Deer Hunter to Rambo and, in so doing, has legitimised subsequent wars of aggression. The revisionism never stops and the blood never dries. The invader is pitied and purged of guilt, while “searching for some meaning in this terrible tragedy”. Cue Bob Dylan: “Oh, where have you been, my blue-eyed son?”
I thought about the “decency” and “good faith” when recalling my own first experiences as a young reporter in Vietnam: watching hypnotically as the skin fell off Napalmed peasant children like old parchment, and the ladders of bombs that left trees petrified and festooned with human flesh. General William Westmoreland, the American commander, referred to people as “termites”.
In the early 1970s, I went to Quang Ngai province, where in the village of My Lai, between 347 and 500 men, women and infants were murdered by American troops (Burns prefers “killings”). At the time, this was presented as an aberration: an “American tragedy” (Newsweek ). In this one province, it was estimated that 50,000 people had been slaughtered during the era of American “free fire zones”. Mass homicide. This was not news.
To the north, in Quang Tri province, more bombs were dropped than in all of Germany during the Second World War. Since 1975, unexploded ordnance has caused more than 40,000 deaths in mostly “South Vietnam”, the country America claimed to “save” and, with France, conceived as a singularly imperial ruse.
The “meaning” of the Vietnam war is no different from the meaning of the genocidal campaign against the Native Americans, the colonial massacres in the Philippines, the atomic bombings of Japan, the levelling of every city in North Korea. The aim was described by Colonel Edward Lansdale, the famous CIA man on whom Graham Greene based his central character in The Quiet American [ http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0143039024/counterpunchmaga ].
Quoting Robert Taber’s The War of the Flea, Lansdale said, “There is only one means of defeating an insurgent people who will not surrender, and that is extermination. There is only one way to control a territory that harbours resistance, and that is to turn it into a desert.”
Nothing has changed. When Donald Trump addressed the United Nations on 19 September – a body established to spare humanity the “scourge of war” – he declared he was “ready, willing and able” to “totally destroy” North Korea and its 25 million people. His audience gasped, but Trump’s language was not unusual.
His rival for the presidency, Hillary Clinton, had boasted she was prepared to “totally obliterate” Iran, a nation of more than 80 million people. This is the American Way; only the euphemisms are missing now.
Returning to the US, I am struck by the silence and the absence of an opposition – on the streets, in journalism and the arts, as if dissent once tolerated in the “mainstream” has regressed to a dissidence: a metaphoric underground.

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